Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

1 June, 2008

Weekend Design Challenge: Ranged vs. close attacks

One common theme in online games is that it’s hard to balanced ranged attacks vs. up-close (usually melee) attacks. In general, one or the other seems to be much more potent.

So, this week, let’s talk about how to balance these two types of attacks.

In many games, ranged attacks have an advantage over other attacks: in certain cases, the player can avoid taking damage while still doing damage. In some games, the infamous “pathing problems” create a situation where a player can attack an NPC, but it cannot find a way to attack the player back. Rarely can a melee-type character do the same.

Let’s look at a few games and see how these different types of attacks work.

World of Warcraft

This game is interesting in that a few classes have very limited ways of doing ranged attacks. Druids, Paladins, and Shamans, for example, can’t equip ranged weapons at all. Shamans have plenty of ranged spells, Paladins eventually got a Captain America…er, Avenger Shield… ability, and Druids can cast ranged spells in caster form (not helpful for Ferals, though). One class was entirely focused on ranged damage, the Hunter, and this class has consistently been one of the easiest to play solo; it also has the double-bonus of being a pet class, which is often very powerful.

It’s interesting to note that at one time Hunters had a “dead zone”: an area where a target was too close for ranged attacks, but too far away for melee attacks. This was a keystone for many tactics for dealing with hunters in PvP, but the zone was removed in a patch.

Ranged attacks are also very powerful in raid situations, too. WoW’s mechanics allow ranged damage dealers to have a higher threat threshold before they grab aggro compared to melee characters. In encounters were bosses run around, or multiple targets need to be taken down, the ranged characters can often do superior damage over time compared to melee characters that have to run around in order to get close enough to attack targets.

Overall, there is some give and take with ranged vs. melee damage, but ranged tends to have more advantages in general.

Age of Conan

This game also has some classes that are more focused on ranged and others on close damage. The main character I’ve chosen, a Bear Shaman, has relatively few options for ranged attacks; this seemed to be a conscious design decision according some interviews of developers online. The class seems hard to play initially, but most people agree it gets easier around level 20. I found this to be true, and I think it’s mostly because of the ability to use bows at level 20. While the class can use thrown weapons, the longer distance and better damage allowed me to soften opponents up significantly. It also allowed me more options in pulling wandering monsters without having to tread too closely to others. It’s also interesting to note that one of the bonus items you can claim is a high quality bow, much better than the other weapons available at that level.

However, melee characters in AoC have “combos” they can do which do enhanced damage. This allows a character to perform special moves which have special effects. One powerful Bear Shaman ability reduces the defense of an opponent and does tremendous damage. Will these offset the power of ranged attacks?

Meridian 59

Bows have an interesting history in M59. In the early days of the game, you could not pick a specific target to attack. This meant you had to face the right direction to attack a specific monster. Ranged weapons were challenging, because you couldn’t be sure you were going to hit your preferred target if you were facing a bunch of targets grouped together at range. So, it took a fair amount of player skill to use ranged weapons without peppering friends and foes alike with arrows.

However, some players discovered how to cheat the game and make it attack a specific target through a flaw in the design of the client. The only reasonable option was to expand the client to give this power to everyone legitimately. However, in the process, ranged attacks became significantly overpowered since you could select a target and keep hitting it as long as it was within sight and within range. Many purists claim the game was better before targeting; some still ask for it to be removed from the game, even though this would just give cheaters another tool. Bows now come in different flavors, with more damaging bows having shorter ranges.

Ranged spells were rather restrictive. Many spells had very short ranges, and all spells required the use of reagents for every cast. So, fireballs and lightning bolts were very expensive to cast repeatedly. In addition, only one school had long distance spells; since most of M59′s gameplay revolved around the use of spells and most of them were close range, melee weapons were still an important part of the game for damaging people between casts of spells.

Your thoughts?

So, there is my evaluation of ranged attacks in three different games. What do you think? Do you think a game has handled the distinction perfectly? Or, do you have an idea to balance out the differences? Perhaps looking to pen-and-paper type games could provide some insight.

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  1. One of the most important things about military tactics is range. You always, always want to be able to hit your enemy before he can hit you. In the real world, range tends to require skill, and capital (think of the progression from a longbow to rifled artillery to a fighter jet), and even then, the greater your range, the less your precision.

    Stepping over to video games, range is fun. It adds a level of tactical complexity, and of course realism. The problem is, it needs to be treated as just another quantitative factor, and not the total game-breaker that it is in real life.

    I’d propose a system that I think we maybe haven’t seen yet in a major game: show a slice of the actual technological progression that embodies range, in your game. Instead of making it “rogues can have bows, but can’t wear armor”, make it, “everyone can have a bow, but they’re tough to make, tough to maintain, and tough to keep stocked with arrows. But man, when they work, they work.” In WoW numbers, a <20 would never have a bow. A <40 might have a primitive one, and have the resources to get off a few shots at the boss fight. By 60-80 you’d have a bow specialized for your style of fighting, and different ways of making different projectiles for different purposes. Those shots would be expensive, risky to take, but very effective.

    Comment by Bret — 1 June, 2008 @ 3:26 PM

  2. I usually play various warrior type characters for various irrelevant reasons. Something that keeps beeing annoying is how the class descriptions state boldly that these classes are rough, brutal and deadly and so on but whenever there is a pvp fight the game becomes about preventing latency from being at the advantage of your opponent who mostly is alternating between running and crowd control.

    I think what Bret describes is a holy grail for mmorpg’s, it will just take some 5 years or more for the industry to wiggle out from the “safe” zone of classes. (Not much unlike how UO played for a hardcore macroer back in the day. Just poorly implemented in the mechanics when the upkeep cost really is about macroing up new skills when the devs make changes to the system.) ^^

    Comment by Wolfe — 2 June, 2008 @ 1:22 AM

  3. In World of Warcraft ARENA it seems to be very much the other way around. Melee classes have a bonus over ranged classes. As soon as you close in on a ranged class you neutralize most of their damage output, plus most ranged classes wear shabby armor so they die quick when you do get to them as well. A warrior rules supreme, they can charge and intercept enemies and keep stuck to them in close range. Only a few ranged classes have sufficient mechanics to keep an enemy at bay. A mage has slow effects and freeze effects but if you have a paladin in your team all these things are pretty useless with blessing of freedom.

    Comment by Sandrock — 2 June, 2008 @ 2:52 AM

  4. Seems like you missed the number one thing ranged attacks are used for in modern MMOs: Pulling. A character missing this piece of “crowd control” is at a serious disadvantage.

    Comment by Rik — 5 June, 2008 @ 2:16 AM

  5. I’d probably respond by arguing that the notion of beasts and humanoids wandering around, alone enough to be “pulled” is also tactically unrealistic.

    Comment by Bret — 8 June, 2008 @ 8:04 AM

  6. A bit of necro posting, but I found another interesting example of the power of ranged combat in LotRO, my current MMO of choice. Two of my characters were significantly improved when I gained the ability to use ranged weapons: my Champion and my Guardian. Once I could use bows, it was easier to “pull” monsters (as Rik says above), and runners aren’t such a pain in the ass.

    It’s interesting that in LotRO, the melee DPS has undergone a lot of nerfs in the history of the game. Burglars, the primary single-target melee DPS class, seem to be sorely underrepresented; this could also be because their utility powers are really restricted in big boss fights. Champions have the benefit of having some of the best AoE in the game, but some of their abilities have been reduced as well.

    Perhaps I need to start just playing ranged DPS when I pick a DPS character. :P

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 February, 2010 @ 7:25 PM

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